In 1987, Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Jonathan Cott sat down with Elizabeth Taylor in her suite at New York's Hôtel Plaza Athénée, when the actress was 55. "There was no standing on ceremony, no pretense, no pulling punches," recalls Cott. "She was so forthright, witty and fearless." The previously unpublished interview is presented here for the first time.
You started making films in Hollywood during the 1940s. How has the movie business changed since then?
It used to be a sin to be considered a Hollywood actor. Even worse to be a star — God forbid a superstar. Stage actors would accuse people of selling out when they'd go to Hollywood. Actually, I think the whole thing is a bunch of bullshit, and I always have. An actor is an actor whether it's in Hollywood, whether it's in Africa, whether it's on stage, television or in film. Acting has to be generated from within.
How does that happen for you?
I have never had an acting lesson in my life. But I've learned, I hope, from watching people like Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Jimmy Dean — all people who were finely tuned and educated in the art of acting. They were my education. I found quite early on that I couldn't act as a puppet — there would be something pulling my strings too hard — and that I did my best work by being guided, not by being forced. And I suppose that really is just the child in me — wanting to be allowed to grow and develop at my instinctual sort of pace. If you describe me as an actress, you'd have to say that I wasn't a distinctive actress as actresses go, because I'm certainly not a polished technician.
Many of your fans would disagree. But just as "Hollywood" was once used as a dismissive epithet, so today some "stage-actor" types often demean "television stars." I gather you wouldn't agree with that.
I've seen some splendid work on television. And I think it was your "definitive" stage actor, Larry Olivier, who said that he thought that one of the finest ways a person could learn was through the medium of television — especially the soaps, where the actors have to be so creative day in and day out. My son is currently doing a play and a soap at the same time, and it's like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. Now, when I first watched soaps, it was always a real giggle for me, and then I became enthralled. I thought this is my show — General Hospital, I mean, this is karma, this has got to be my first soap. [laughter] So I watched General Hospital and really liked it so much that one day I was a surprise visitor on the show. And my God, I have such admiration for that form of art in acting. It's bloody hard work.
Someone once said that the old Hollywood studio was a kind of extended family.
It was like a big extended factory, I'm sorry to say. But if you like being smothered, I guess it was a very productive family. I was nine when I made my first films in Hollywood. I was used from the day I was a child, and utilized by the studio. I was promoted for their pockets. I never felt that they were a haven. I've always been very much my own person. I had my own mother and father — they were my family, not the bloody studio.
Was there a particular incident that stands out?
When I was 15 and Louis B. Mayer started screaming at my mother and using swear words that I'd never heard before ("I took you and your fucking daughter out of the gutter"), I uttered my first swear word and told him that he didn't dare speak to my mother that way, and he and the studio could both go to hell, and that I was never going to go back to his office. And I left my mother there with her eyes shut, and I think she was sort of praying.
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